The Temple and "Big Love": Mormonism and American Culture

So for the makers of "Big Love," to believe in Mormon doctrine is harmless and even maybe beneficial. Moreover, the show suggests that it's actually the institutional versions of Mormonism -- the creepy prophets in the wilderness, the slick bureaucrats of Salt Lake -- that make the faith dissonant in American society. This may seem a new way of approaching Mormonism in the early 21st century, when most of the antagonism toward the church has been driven by conservative evangelical counter-cult ministries that paint the faith as bizarre and un-Christian. However, it's also a very old criticism, one that arose in the 19th century, when Americans who had drunk deep of the virtues of democracy and individualism looked with skepticism and even fear at a church governed by an elaborate hierarchy that reached into the economic, social, and political lives of its members.

I would argue that the episode "Outer Darkness" is an expression of this sort of wariness of the Mormon faith. Given its sympathy to Mormon belief, the temple content of the episode is oddly off-key. The most obvious problem (aside from the affront of its very presence) is that the plot grinds slowly to a halt while Barb recites an entire cumbersome chunk of the veil ceremony. This is unusual for "Big Love," in which imitations of Mormon rites are generally suppler than this (see, for instance, the baptism for the dead episode a few weeks earlier). For unfamiliar viewers who lack the sense of violation that might keep Mormons tense throughout, the monotone recitation of archaic phrases could quickly become tiresome.

It is thus not impossible to imagine the show's producers were aware that the transgression would surely goose Mormon viewers. The event is skillfully presented and within the still-sympathetic arc of Barb's character, but it simply goes on too long to work artistically. Bind that to the particular content -- perhaps the pinnacle, the most sacrosanct moment of an already private ritual -- and we are left with the sense of a production team that knows precisely what it is doing. However, as I hope I've already demonstrated, Mormons interested in claiming their right to a measure of respect in American popular culture should not simply cry foul, take their ball, and go home. That would do the show -- but more importantly, Mormonism itself -- a disservice. Better to use this episode to learn more about who the Latter-day Saints are in American life.

The secrecy that surrounds the temple is one of the last bastions of peculiarity within a rushing tide of Mormon cultural assimilation. Noah Feldman's concept of "soft-secrecy" points toward 20th-century Mormons' proclivity to minimize those things that might seem odd or disturbing to contemporary Americans while maintaining silence about the interior workings of the church as a way to assure ourselves that we are still possessed of holiness, of that special set-apartness that once characterized our entire lives. It's a way to preserve the power of the distinctions and initiations that make Mormon culture strong and give it clarity within the confusing whirlwinds of American life.

I would argue, then, that this particular poke in the Mormon eye is related to larger debates about religion, politics, and the public square and about the place of a centralized ecclesiastical hierarchy in the American landscape. Mormons have sacrificed much of their identity for the sake of acceptance in American life, but still suffer penalties for keeping the scraps of distinctiveness that remain. The rough and tumble American public square approaches Mormon secrecy warily. To many outside observers it remains suspect, representative of an authoritarian, illiberal religious culture that undermines American values and threatens the very functioning of American government.

Recently the Church was accused of precisely that: of subverting democracy by proxy, of manipulating American politics from the sidelines while still trying to remain aloof from the demand to fully bare itself as the price of admission. The battle over Proposition 8 earned Mormonism the ire of gay activists, whose ranks include several of the producers of "Big Love." This shadow over the plot was darkest in Barb's last speech to the disciplinary council that excommunicates her at the end of the episode. "I love the church, but I believe the church and its leaders are in grave error on polygamy and on the kinds of marriages and families it creates," she said (emphasis added). "I can't forsake my family.

" The lines here are cleanly drawn; the aspects of Mormonism that "Big Love" finds sympathetic are turned against those it does not, and the episode, if it does nothing else, strips away Mormon secrecy. In so doing it attempts to shove the Church unwillingly into the bright lights and cacophony of the public square.

This was, then, not the show's finest hour as a work of art, but it is perhaps the most interesting, because the several gears at work here grind more loudly than usual.

Matt Bowman is a graduate student in American religious history at Georgetown University.

6/22/2009 4:00:00 AM